Curry Researchers' Award-Winning Work Looks for Talent in Nontraditional Ways

by Lynn Bell

November 7, 2010 — Curry School of Education researchers Tonya Moon and Catherine Brighton are interested in talent searches, but not the kind that turns up performers for TV reality shows.

Their work is helping teachers in Henry County identify elementary school students who may be gifted in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They are especially concerned about children often overlooked in schools’ gifted programs – students from minority or low-income backgrounds.

If their strategy proves successful, they hope eventually to make their curricula available to schools nationally.

“The potential for talent exists in all cultural groups, in all socio-economic strata, and in speakers of all languages,” Brighton said. “It just requires that the lenses for viewing these emerging talents be broadened to see the potential in all learners.”

Broadening the lenses for talent identification is the goal of Project Parallax, the initiative directed by Moon and Brighton, associate professors in U.Va.‘s Curry School of Education, to develop and test a series of problem-based, technology-infused science and mathematics units for grades two through five.

As Moon wrote in a July New York Times commentary, standardized tests for giftedness can be biased. “School districts need to use multiple measures and multiple methods in identifying children for gifted and talented programs,” she wrote. “And in the case of young children, schools should provide multiple opportunities for assessment, particularly those from low-income and minority families. Those students often are not identified as gifted early on and therefore less likely to be identified later in their academic careers.”

Because some talented children may lack the cultural experiences or language skills to do well on typical tests for giftedness, Moon said, Project Parallax units are designed to give children opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities in nontraditional ways.

The quality of Moon and Brighton’s work has already been recognized by the National Association for Gifted Children. The association annually selects two curriculum units to receive Outstanding Curriculum Awards, and Project Parallax swept the primary grades category this year. The Project Parallax team members will accept their award on Nov. 12 at the association’s annual convention in Atlanta.

Moon and Brighton are faculty members in Curry’s educational psychology/gifted program. They have assembled a team of educators who develop units in one grade level per year and then collect data as Henry County teachers try out the units in their classrooms. Last year, they began with 15 second-grade classes participating in the project, with another 15 classes serving as the control group.

In one unit they developed, second-graders were challenged to work together to schedule and plan every element of a class party, while another unit had them figuring out how to spend $50 donated to the Martinsville-Henry County SPCA by an anonymous benefactor. In the third unit, students provided a local scientist with information about how best to grow tomato plants given the drought conditions of the region. Students learned calendar skills, money counting, budgeting, pattern recognition, graphing, proportional reasoning, life cycles and scientific reasoning.

Each unit includes multiple ways for students to learn concepts and express their ideas, which they can select based on their learning preferences, project manager Chrissy Trinter said. Activities of varying complexity are provided as well, so teachers can assign activities to individual students based on daily assessments of their learning needs.

Teachers receive training in the summer prior to implementing the units so they can hone their own science and mathematics content knowledge. They also learn how to take advantage of the curriculum’s features to engage students in rich discussions, Trinter said. They are coached to prompt deeper student thinking with statements like “What’s another way you could solve that problem?” and “Tell me your logic.”

“We want them to encourage out-of-the-box thinking instead of expecting all students to come to a solution by the same path,” Trinter said. “And at nearly every place in these units, there are multiple solution strategies.”

At crucial junctures in the units, Project Parallax developers direct teachers to “look for talent here.” Non-traditional indicators of talent they might recognize include engaging in substantive conversation with teachers or peers about the content, sharing ideas and asking questions, making connections between the content they are learning and experiences outside of class, and developing alternative arguments or explanations for phenomena they are studying, Moon said.

At Collinsville Primary School in Henry County, Paula Davis was surprised by the talent two children displayed while working on the Parallax curriculum last year. Davis, a 17-year veteran of the classroom, said that one boy for whom English is a second language had been shy and quiet until they began working on the new projects. “He really got into doing the activities, because so few of them were reading- and writing-based,” Davis said. “He could do things that other kids couldn’t do, and he became a leader in the class.”

A second student who usually had trouble focusing his attention on schoolwork turned out to be an excellent debater, making informed arguments about decisions his group needed to make. “His mom called and told me, ‘He really loves what you’re doing,’” Davis said. “I saw another side of him. He showed that he was very knowledgeable, more than he could have shown on a written test.”

As a result of her experience with the Project Parallax units, Davis said she has changed the way she teaches and now tries to bring more real-life applications and open-ended questions into other curriculum areas.

Project Parallax is funded by a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.